Port St. Johns to Hogsback

Port St. Johns

The big city of Johannesburg was a pleasant surprise and Drakensberg was amazing, so with fond memories of both we moved on to the south eastern coast of South Africa, known as the Wild Coast. After a transit stop in the big city of Durban to pick up another of Sissy’s friends who would join us on our way to Cape Town we set off to a quieter, more wild place. Our first stop was in the town of Port St. Johns, a very small place on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

We pulled into Jungle Monkey Backpackers and found a beautiful group of buildings with communal spaces and kitchens in each, all set in the hills with a view of the relatively nearby beach. The price for private rooms was virtually the same as for two dorm beds so we decided to splurge and get our own room for the first time since we were in Mozambique. The bartender/receptionist explained how to walk to second beach, a popular spot in Port St. John’s, so we set off on the hour long walk through the small town.

When we arrived at second beach we found quite a few locals hanging out, a few in the water, however we noticed they were all only waist deep and grouped up right next to each other. It was later explained to us that the coast in that area is notorious for shark attacks and virtually nobody dared venture any further than directly in front of the lifeguard station. After exploring the beach area a bit we headed to the other nearby hostel, Amapondo, for lunch.

Port St. Johns
Second Beach at Port St. Johns was beautiful but considered very dangerous by locals.

Amapondo was famous for being the starting place for most hikes in the area, which we intended to inquire about, and for having a crazy donkey, which they advertised on all of their posters, fliers, and street signs. As we walked into the bar/restaurant area we were greeted by employees and locals, most wearing bright colored wigs and funny hats. We ordered some food and asked about the options for hiking the following day. We were told to talk to the guy sitting behind us, Albert, who was the hiking guide for the area.

Albert talked with us at length about the area, our options to hike with him the next day, and the party they were having that night that we would have to stay for. We had read about a hike that went to a small waterfall, Bulolo Falls, where you could jump off cliffs into the pool underneath and told him we were interested in that route. He told us it was no problem to go, however we would definitely need a guide since it isn’t a signed path. Having spent quite some time on the continent to that point, we were less than convinced that a guide was necessary since a lot of places try to push services that aren’t, but he was so friendly and open about everything that we trusted him enough. When I asked how much he’d charge he answered 65 rand, or about $4.50 each.

We decided we would hike the following morning with Albert, especially since the price was so low, even if it wasn’t great we’d only be out the price of a large coffee at Starbucks back home. While we sat around chatting we noticed a sign on the wall advertising a braai, or South African barbeque, for 45 rand that night. The four of us paid our $3 and settled in for the evening, talking with Albert and a few other locals, learning a bit more about South Africa from their perspective. The country is a very interesting place, and since I first visited the year prior I’ve been very interested in the equality and lack thereof depending on who you talk to.

The next morning we showed up to Amapondo bright and early, seeing some familiar faces from the night before looking a bit hungover. We also noticed a group still drinking beer, which were a group of South Africans on a work trip. They had been drinking at the same bar with us the night before and apparently hadn’t stopped. A group of five of us, Albert, Sissy and her two friends, and another German girl set off on our hike. As we walked along Albert told us stories about the area and his time as a hiking guide, and while doing so realized he had missed our turn for the path.We walked back and forth for a while, staring into high brush on the side of the road, until he finally settled on a spot, claiming it was the start of our trail. Albert jumped into the bushes, barefoot as he had been all morning, and beckoned to us to follow. As we hiked up the side of the mountain we couldn’t distinguish much of a trail until we came across a series of old pipes on the ground. Albert explained that we’d be following the pipes much of the way to the waterfall, and that he knew this trail well, although he hadn’t been on it in over a year as most people don’t ask to go to those falls.

Port St. Johns
Albert showed us the way along the old water pipes and through the bushes.

Walking along it seemed that it had been much more than a year since anyone had been on that “trail”, as a machete would have been necessary to cut a path and allow a comfortable passage. Sissy and I were having a blast shoving through tree branches and knocking spiders out of our way, however the group may have been a little less thrilled at times. After an hour and a half of pushing, shoving, and basically crawling through the jungle, we came to a small, muddy waterfall.

“This is it,” announced Albert as he took his shirt off.

All we saw was a shallow river full of brown water and a small waterfall feeding it. Albert walked up the side of the falls, crossed the river, and was standing on the edge of a cliff about 11 meters high. I quickly scrambled after him and stared in disbelief as he aimed directly at the middle of the tiny river and prepared to jump.

“Are you sure it’s deep enough?” I asked, guessing the water couldn’t be more than two meters deep at best.

“Yeah of course,” he replied, and jumped off the cliff.

He landed with a mighty splash and called out that it was my turn to go. I jumped, aiming for the exact spot he landed in, and kicked my feet forward the second I hit the water. After realizing that I hadn’t touched the bottom, I explored around a bit and found that the small river was actually incredibly deep. Unless you got within a meter or so of the side, you couldn’t touch the bottom of the river if you tried. Sissy and I, along with one of her friends and Albert, had a blast jumping from the cliffs and swimming around, getting a break from the heat of the sun and the jungle we had been crawling around in.

Bulolo Falls
The river and waterfall didn’t look like much, but the water is incredibly deep!

By the time we got back to Amapondo it was early afternoon and time for us to drive on to our next stop on the Wild Coast, a small town called Chintsa. We drove for two hours until we came upon the small village. As I stopped at a stop sign we saw an older couple walking that looked familiar. We continued on to the hostel we’d stay at, Buccaneer’s Backpackers, and were greeted by a bunch more familiar faces. We left the overland truck we’d been with for four months back in Mozambique, happy to be traveling on our own again, however we had unwittingly chosen the same hostel as they had that night and saw our old travel companions again.

The view from the dorm was second to none, overlooking the beautiful beaches of Chintsa. The next morning we enjoyed the view for a bit before heading with the local surf instructor, Judo, down to the ocean for a surf lesson. We paid 225 Rand, or about $16, for a day rental of a board plus a three hour lesson. Between teaching us the basics of proper paddling, kneeling, and standing on the board, Judo also made a habit of doing pseudo-gymnastics in the sand and telling jokes, keeping us entertained the whole time. That afternoon we drove on, sad to say goodbye to the nice hostel in Chintsa so quickly, but excited to see our next destination, a small town in the hills called Hogsback.

Buccaneers Backpackers
The view from our dorm room over the ocean below was great!

Hogsback is known for it’s spectacular nature, great hiking, and is rumored to have been the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” books. When we arrived at our hostel, Away With the Fairies, we were greeted by a scene straight out of The Hobbit, with a cottage for reception where we were given options of staying in the Frodo or Bilbo cottages, Strider’s Cottage, or Bag End Dorm, among others. We were told we had to see the cliff side bathtub, however we’d have to wait until the next day to use it as it was getting dark. The guy working in reception took us for a short walk to a lush, green cliff, where a bath tub was perched on the edge. The tub had hot water running to it via a small furnace just up the hill and looked out over the beautiful valley below.

Away With the Fairies
The cliff side bathtub at Away With the Fairies seemed strangely at home in the fairy tale themed backpackers.

We spent the evening in the courtyard in front of the hostel, where the staff lit candles for each wooden table and a large bonfire nearby. The stars were incredibly bright due to the remoteness of the town, which had a narrow, winding, deserted road leading to it.

The next morning we set off on one of the hikes from the hostel, which started near the bath tub and ended at a waterfall. The Madonna and Child Falls hike takes about an hour and a half from Away With the Fairies to the falls, which takes you through forests that do feel like there could be fairies hiding along the way. We kept our eyes peeled on the way for the red capped mushrooms that are known to be in the area, but the beautiful scenery may have distracted us or we were just unlucky in our search. We swam in a small natural pool under a waterfall before making it to the Madonna and Child Falls, where we also could have swam under a much  more impressive falls.

One of the small streams we passed on our hike to Madonna and Child Falls.
Madonna and Child Falls
Madonna and Child Falls from below. The pools at the bottom are nice for swimming in, so skip the swimming area a few hundred meters below and head up here!

The hike back from the falls was a steep climb to the road, and then a walk on the street through the tiny town. Hobbiton, a local outdoors education center sits just off the road, along with a few pubs and restaurants. As much as we wanted to stay in Hogsback for a few more days, we only had a month in the country and had to move on to our next stop, Addo Elephant Park, for another safari and to move closer to the famous Garden Route.